Game Theory, International Law, and Future Environmental Cooperation in the Middle East

By Hirsch, Moshe | Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview
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Game Theory, International Law, and Future Environmental Cooperation in the Middle East

Hirsch, Moshe, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


Interdependence is an underlying factor within numerous transnational environmental systems. This interdependence generates an interactive decision-making setting in which a state's choice of action is contingent upon the expected behavior of other actors in the international arena. National decision-makers are aware that the quality and quantity of essential environmental resources available in their territories is determined not only by natural factors and their own behavior, but by the actions of other states.

Attaining optimal results in an interactive situation frequently requires "collective action." Collective action occurs when the efforts of two or more individuals are needed to achieve a certain outcome, one which will typically further the interests or well-being of the group.(1) In terms of Pareto Optimality,(2) the course of action which leads to the best outcome for the group is cooperative behavior. The main problem with collective action occurs when a rational individual's behavior leads to Pareto inferior outcomes. This phenomenon often happens in large groups and in situations in which all individuals agree about the common good and the desirable means of achieving it.(3)

In his seminal book, "The Logic of Collective Action", Mancur Olson rigorously presents the basic proposition that rational self-interested individuals frequently will not act in concert to achieve common interests.(4) The negative repercussions of Olson's proposition for international environmental cooperation increases together with the ratio of inter-state environmental independence. While environmental interdependence has long been apparent in the international arena, it has become increasingly prevalent in recent decades. In light of this rapidly growing trend, as well as the deterioration of essential environmental resources in most parts of the world, Olson's theory is particularly relevant to the international community today.

The Middle East environmental system exemplifies both the need for and the impediments to successful regional collective action. Several diverse parties share the Middle East's primary environmental resources. Thus, when a party takes action in one jurisdiction it frequently affects environmental resources in neighboring areas.(5) Such interactive features characterize the Middle East's crucial water resources, marine environment and air basin. Some of the region's environmental resources are at significant risk and future developments may further imperil their sustainable utilization. The peace process, if successful, is expected to generate accelerated economic development and industrialization in the region, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Increased economic development will place more pressure on the region's fragile resources.

Efficient utilization of the Middle East's environmental resources requires the parties to establish and implement cooperative arrangements. In the past, armed conflicts in the Middle East precluded almost any environmental cooperation among the parties. Indeed, the first elaborated cooperative arrangements only emerged in 1994. The environmental provisions in the recently concluded agreements between Israel and its neighbors(6) have a clear bilateral character. However, optimal protection and utilization of the region's environmental resources frequently necessitates the establishment of cooperative arrangements on a regional level. Furthermore, the termination of hostilities does not ensure that an optimal framework for cooperation will emerge in the future. Recall Olson's proposition regarding collective action failure: rational self-interested actors frequently will not act to achieve their common interests, even when optimal results and the appropriate means of attaining them are agreed upon.

Avoiding collective action failure in the Middle Eastern environmental system requires an examination of the factors motivating or hindering international cooperation.

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